Where, Oh Where, Are My Seniors?

I keep watch of our attendance figures and pay attention to trends from year to year. As a district, our overall yearly attendance percentage is relatively consistent. The elementary and middle school averaging around 95% each month, with our 9-12 building averaging between 91-94%. Change is incremental when watching attendance. I want to make enough of a difference in climate that attendance increases.

Here’s the part that has me fried today. We’ve made significant improvements in grades 9-11 for every month this year, but our Seniors are making me crazy! Their attendance was as low as 86.58% in November, while our freshmen and sophomores were each up to at least 94%.

And in case you’re wondering, yes, we have an attendance policy with negative consequences for frequent absences to include loss of credit in a class for 25 days missed in the year. We conduct positive school wide programs to encourage attendance and we work really hard to create a caring, supportive environment where students want to come here.

I’m frustrated because I’m at a loss in problem solving this issue. I’ve read the literature, I’ve tried different approaches, and still our attendance for seniors is down 2.63% in December and 4.41% in November. Even if I compare to the senior class of 2004, prior to my arrival, this year’s class is still down in October and November, lower than any senior class in the past four years. How do I turn that around?

Why do I care? Because currently our senior guidance counselor is meeting with seniors who have done little to nothing in some classes, possibly add in poor attendance, and will fail courses by January’s end that precludes them from graduating. They know they’ve done nothing–it shouldn’t come as a shock, and yet they’ll be frustrated and upset at the news that a diploma is not happening.

Seniors who read G-Town Talks, I know you’re not many and you probably don’t fall into these categories, but please realize that poor attendance and lack of effort have dire circumstances for your peers. I really want to give every one of you a diploma on June 22, but you have to earn it first. Your Gowanda High School diploma means something, it’s earned, not given away. Show up here and participate. Please.

Retirement Ruminations

I’m thinking a lot about retirement lately, despite the fact that I’ve got another 13 years to go until I’m eligible. Why? My mom is retiring in 59 days and like me, her work identity is center to who she is as a person.

I’m the daughter of a working mom. This simple fact has certainly shaped my perspective on career and family. Donna’s  worked for Jendoco Construction since 1965 as a secretary and for the past several years, as their office manager. For my entire life, she’s been connected to the projects, the bids, the owner and his children, the “guys” in the office, and her coworkers. I’ve been to company picnics, Christmas parties, and sadly, funerals. Her work life has largely influenced who she is as a woman. Her closest friends were made at work, and maintained after many of them moved on. These are the women I grew up studying, the women I most considered and wondered about as I became a young woman.

I’ve watched my mom worry over every detail at work, including a decision about pantyhose. Yep, the girls in the office didn’t want to wear pantyhose and my mom insisted. Each time I entered my own work place without pantyhose, I guiltily thought of my mom. After all, Pearl, Mom’s office manager of the sixties would never have allowed it! Those were the standards set for her and she believed it was her role to maintain that standard. She’s also worried over every job, every bid, every letter–always expecting the best performance of herself and of the women she managed.

She’s taught me a work ethic, a loyalty to the organization, and a dedication to the job. Donna Lee’s also taught me that giving 100% effort on every task is the only option. Now that my mom’s retiring, I wonder how she’ll let it all go. The worries about each bid and document completed–what will she fill that time with?

I hope she fills it with longer walks. And more time to read. And coffee with my dad. And many, many trips to New York to see us and to Virginia to see my brother. And shopping. I hope she takes the time to do nothing and to allow herself to feel good about doing nothing. To write in the journal I gave her for Christmas and to fill its pages with every memory that enters her head.

Most of all, I hope she finds the time to breathe deeply. And that the breathing gets much easier. I can’t imagine my life without my mom in it. She’s my dearest friend, my champion. She’s the one who always thinks the best of me, who really listens to every word. I’m looking forward to the opportunity for more time with her.

Mom, I hope you breathe deeply and easily. You definitely deserve it.

The Best Nurses Are Like our Best Teachers

As we’ve settled into this strange routine at Childrens’ Hospital, I’m left thinking about this world that we’re living in. I’m thinking about the surgeons who take the time to answer all of our questions and to talk directly to our son. And I’m thinking a lot about the litany of nurses coming through our lives this week. Actually, we’re visitors in their lives as we live where they work.

Some barely make an imprint, just doing their jobs, efficiently and effectively. Others make an extra effort to ask a question or to notice something about my son. One nurse took me on a tour, two days in, to show me where I could go to get Tallon another juice or a popsicle, something I wish someone had done on the first day. Still another nurse printed information on spleen injuries for me, which I especially appreciated because I like to know as much about something like this as possible. And the best was the nurse we had the second night in who just showed so much tenderness that my son wished for her again.

Just like teaching, there are those in nursing who passed almost anonymously through our lives and those who left an imprint. How simple it was for them to spend just an extra minute and leave us feeling so much better. Showing us that they cared enough to SEE my son, not just another patient in room 910, made a difference to us.

This is exactly the same as what our best teachers do. They see my child, all of him, and they show him that they care who he is. The best teachers, like the best nurses, aren’t afraid to show they care, that they’re interested more in the kid than the task.

Life Happens Despite Our Plans

So I’m hanging out at Childrens’ Hospital in Buffalo these days and even here I’m learning something that affects how I view G-Town.  On Tuesday night, our 14 year old son was sparring and took a thrust kick to precisely the right spot to lacerate his spleen. For any parents who have experienced the agonizing wait of a helicopter, followed by the decision to send a pediatric stat unit to move him via ambulance, you know the “nothing else matters in this world but getting my child the care he needs to come home to us whole” panic. As it turns out, he has a grade three laceration which means total in hospital bed rest for at least three more days and tons of restrictions for the next several weeks, if not months. There goes wrestling, and hockey, and kickboxing, but that seems inconsequential, because our kid is going to be okay. 

My coworkers have been outstanding and Tallon’s friends are texting him constantly. The communication link that’s helping to alleviate some boredom for my bed bound boy is worth any amount of money. And after going home last night for a Board meeting, I’ve made the decision to stay here (we’re about 45 minutes from home) for as long as he is here. I rushed home yesterday so that I could take care of my work responsibilities and then came back to spend the night. Did it matter that I attended that meeting? Absolutely didn’t seem to and it certainly added a tremendous amount of stress to an already stressful day.  So what does this teach me as a principal? As a leader and a manager, my employees need to know that family ALWAYS comes first. At the end of the day, I’ll know I did right by my son and he’ll know I chose him over my career. In the long run, school will have functioned well without me and my kid will remember that his mom was there for him. 

I’ve also thought about the amount of work we give kids to “make up” when out for an extended illness, particularly one of our students who’s out for more than my son’s week. Our teachers shouldn’t expect a child to do all of the work, every assignment given, during the absence. That’s definitely what I always did as a teacher. And I figured giving the student extra time was helpful. Instead, it’s so much harder because the student has to complete all of the work without the benefit of instruction, while coping with an illness, missing out on all the good parts of school, and while worrying about maintaining grades. I wish I could go back and do it again, because I’d say to those students “this is the learning that’s most important from your week or two hospital stay. Take care of these two assignments and I’ll help you with the rest.” Instead, I worried that every missing assignment in my gradebook was filled in. How ridiculous that was considering the magnitude of what the child and family may have been facing.  Every now and then life seems to get in the way of our best laid plans. This is exactly when I’m going to pay  attention to what life’s trying to teach me.

Blogging Beats Podcasts (for me)

Today is a Snow Day in G-Town, much to the delight of our teachers and students. I’m still required to work, but I love snow days as much as the next person. Why? I get a full workday, without interruption, to accomplish any project I would like. I try to get to things I don’t normally have an opportunity to work on.

This morning, I’ve been listening to my first podcasts over at edtechlive. As tech savvy as I’m becoming (thanks to Will Richardson for the reference in his article in this month’s issue of NAESP’s Principal magazine), I’m honestly not always out there trying new technologies.

In an effort to continue learning, I really listened to Chris Lehmann and Will Richardson’s podcasts. Hate to say what others so often do, but I never have taken the time (note I didn’t say that I don’t have the time) to listen or watch. I also watched Robert Scoble’s PodTech video interview with Bill Gates.

Here’s the thing. I don’t think this format works for me. I was cleaning out files while I listened. That doesn’t take a lot of thought. And I wasn’t as engaged as when I’m reading. I also wasn’t really reflecting. Maybe it’s me. I seldom watch TV and could live without the radio. I’m a voracious reader and that must be why blogging works so well for me.

Naturally, my next thought is about learning. If I were still a classroom teacher, I would most likely use blogging in the classroom much more than podcasts or video interviews. That wouldn’t be as helpful to all of the learners in the classroom who get more from audio or video. Once again, seventeen years into education I’m realizing that it’s important to mix it up in the classroom, using a variety of instructional strategies.

Here’s where my thought has evolved and this is the thing that’s different about my thinking based on what I’ve learned through blogging. Instead of teachers directing the different kinds of learning, with all students being subjected to all strategies, connecting with some while their classmates connect more with others—we need to give our students opportunities for creative collaboration where they get to learn in whatever ways work for them. I know it’s being said a lot in the edublogging communities, but it’s about allowing our students to own their own learning with access to the wide, wonderful web with whatever format works best for them.

Can I say again how thankful I am that I started reading and learning online, which has allowed me to evolve into a better teacher and administrator? I keep hearing and reading that it takes getting school leaders involved to make a difference in schools. As a high school principal, I can say with experience that I do have the power, and the responsibility, to make a real difference for our students. As do my colleagues.

Fact vs. Fiction

Please check out this post at The Pulse by Pete Reilly–The Facts About Online Sex Abuse and Schools. Mr. Reilly effectively dispells the hype in the media and effectively shows the truth about online abuse. Unfortunately, there are too many people in leadership positions both in schools and in government that hear the very few cases of abuse and make decisions based on those stories sensationalized in the media.

That’s why Mr. Reilly’s story hits home. Please read it. It’s relevant to the discussion taking place in G-Town right now and strongly supports our case going before the School Board this Wednesday night. Again, Chris Lehmann’s words echo in my head,

 “The fear of what could go wrong can’t stop me from doing what’s right.”

Chris–that may seriously be the quote of the century for me. I’m living by it. Thank you.

Who’s to blame at McKinney North?

As a high school principal, I read with interest the reports coming out of McKinney North High School in Texas about five teenage girls on the cheerleading squad and their bad behavior in and out of school.

If interested, please read the full report. This poll on AOL was what amazed me, not the story. Readers could answer the question “Who do you blame most for the cheerleaders’ behavior?” As I write this post, 375,524 people have voted. Of those 48% blame the parents, 36% blame the cheerleaders, 15% blame the school, and 1% blame other.

Who do we blame? According to the reports, this was ongoing and flagrant bad behavior. We could blame the parents, which also means blaming the school because the principal is also the mother of one of the girls. We could just blame the school, all of the adults working there who came into contact with them and didn’t stand up to stop it either personally, by going to the Superintendent and the School Board, or by calling every parent involved. We could blame the girls, who are obviously old enough to be held responsible for their choices.

Who do we blame? Kids make mistakes every single day. We work hard to have a consistent reaction, with consequences that follow our code of conduct. Every case has different circumstances, but we do follow through. Every time. We investigate and we listen and we hold students accountable. Often times in dealing with discipline issues, it seems no one is satisfied with our results. But at the end of the day, I know we’ve done our due diligence and made the best decision possible for all involved. When we notify parents, 90% of the time we work with families who support us and I know the student is receiving consequences at home too. There are those students who have little to no support at home and those parental reactions, if we even get them, are different.

But at McKinney North, who’s to blame? Everything that happens in G-Town is ultimately my responsibility. Every action taken by every employee and every student. It’s my responsibility to pay attention, to listen, to correct behavior, and to hold people accountable. It’s my responsibility to make G-Town the best place it can be for every person who walks through our doors.

Who to blame? Everyone holds a piece of this, first the girls for their actions, then the parents if they knew of the behavior and failed to correct it.  But the principal who resigned? She holds the ultimate responsibility. The fact that she’s a mom too just makes it that much more disappointing. She needed to stand up and say “not in my school, not on my watch.”

Educating Trumps Blocking

We’ve been blocking Google from our school computers because of the image search portion of the engine. This has made teachers insane because they can’t search for anything without being screen-doored. One of our elementary teachers couldn’t even search for a picture of a dove to supplement a reading activity today. Our students don’t even try to look for anything while at school if they’ve got access to a computer at home. One of our seniors, Nick, reported at the technology committee meeting that students who only used the school computers produced substandard projects for English class because their search for advertisements was so limited.

Enter the alternative to blocking everything—education. Stop filtering everything, teach kids how and where they can go on-line while in school, and give consequences to the 2% who make a mistake. Our students are supervised at all times in school, so add software that allows the study hall teaching assistant to monitor all computers from his desktop. Talk to teachers and students about appropriate use. Remind parents in the district newsletter about our acceptable use policy and explain our philosophy about educating our students rather than prohibiting them.

I think they call this common sense. Wise use of our computer investment. Using our resources to educate our young people. Preparing a response through consequences for those few students who get past the filtering of salacious content. Talk about our plan.

And yes indeed folks, that’s just what our technology committee, including Superintendent Rinaldi, decided to do today.  Teachers and students of G-Town prepare to get back out there, investigate, discover and LEARN.

Thank goodness I work in G-Town where learning comes first, where students are respected, trusted, and held accountable. Thank goodness we’re not fashioning little lockers outside of our school where students must leave their connections locked up. I’d rather we help them make good connections right inside our door.

It Never Hurts to Ask

Our district technology committee met today after school to talk about how to spend the rest of this year’s money and to work on next year’s plan. In the course of the discussion, I was able to advocate for additional computer lab space. Our teacher on the committee, Sharon H., helped support the request.

Currently in our 9-12 building, we have one MacLab and one lab on a cart that few seem to like. As much as I’ve encouraged our teachers to move forward with technology, I also know that they jockey for this one lab and struggle with issues including speed and screen doors.  Ideally, we would add an additional lab for teachers to use with their classes and one that’s open all day for students to use from study halls. We managed to formulate a plan to add significant numbers of computers to our library, where we have plenty of space and a need to more toward Library 2.0. Our technology coordinator, Doug Pine, just makes it happen.

In the future, I’d love to create an additional lab in what’s currently our Senior Lounge. Love the idea of an area for our Seniors only as we’ve created it, but have to admit I’d trade it in a heartbeat for an additional computer lab. There was excellent support from the committee, including our superintendent.

What if I’d just assumed it was asking too much? Once again, my belief that it never hurts to ask is confirmed.  It’s my job to listen to the teachers and students in our building and then evaluate how we can make it better.  I’m glad that our superintendent and the committee listened to a  reasonable argument for an expenditure that can significantly impact student learning.

It’s certainly prudent to never accept what “is” without questioning “but how can it be better?” Good thing that’s my strong suit.